Return to Transcripts main page


U.S. Preparing "Full and Rapid" withdrawal from Syria; White House Bends on $5 Billion for Border Wall; Criminal Justice Reform Passes Senate in Bipartisanship Bill; CNN Obtains Letter Signed by Trump on Moscow Tower that Giuliani Said He Didn't Sign. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired December 19, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: And we begin with breaking news. A big military decision by President Trump that could have major implications for the Middle East. A defense official telling CNN the military is preparing for a, quote, "full and rapid withdrawal" of American troops from Syria. The U.S. has been in Syria since late 2015 and has about 2,000 troops currently there.

President Trump, moments ago, declaring, quote, "We have defeated ISIS in Syria." But the president is already getting strong pushback from Senators in his own party on this. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham responded that ISIS is not defeated in Syria. And Senator Marco Rubio said a U.S. withdrawal from Syria would be, quote, "a grave error."

Joining us with details are CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, and CNN senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh.

Barbara, first to you.

What do you know about this announcement?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Pamela, what we are learning is was yesterday that President Trump said he wanted a withdrawal from Syria. The Pentagon now engaging in the planning to try to make it happen. There's no indication there's an effort to try to get the president, at least at the Pentagon, to change his mind about this despite the rapidly forming opposition to the decision. What this means is the 2,000 U.S. ground troops in Syria will come out as soon as the Pentagon can finalize plans for that. This does not necessarily mean no involvement by the U.S. in Syria in fighting ISIS. One can suppose the U.S. may launch artillery strikes from across the border in Iraq or that air strikes could still happen. But the question is, is ISIS really defeated as the president says? I think you would be hard pressed to find anybody at the Pentagon willing to sign up to that. There are any number of estimates, from hundreds if not thousands of ISIS fighters and loyalists still in eastern Syria. The Pentagon had planned very much on continuing operations there and staying to some extent with the U.S. presence to try to help rebuild the Syrian portions that had been devastated by the ISIS fight.

The last part of this calculation is, what does it mean on the ground? The thousands of fighters backed by the U.S. in Syria, local fighters, will they be abandoned now? What will Russian and Iranian-backed militias do? They are in Syria and will be left with the sole influence on the ground along with the Syrian regime. The U.S. may find itself very rapidly shut out of this very vital corner of the Middle East -- Pamela?

BROWN: Nick, I want to bring you in on this because the president is claiming victory saying ISIS has been defeated. That is at odds with what senior administration officials said. Even just yesterday the State Department said the job of defeating ISIS is not done yet. What are the facts here about the president's claim?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It depends what you mean by defeated. Yes, they have lost their major cities. Yes, only in the last week or so, they lost Hajjam (ph) a key town they were trying to hold onto. But that's not really how you defeat an insurgency like ISIS. It is an idea but it's also increasingly fighters scattered around the desert. Baghdadi, their leader, is still out there as well. There's a lot of extra work to do to ensure they don't come back and get more territory. This is not a part of the world where people necessarily stay in the same place unless you are pushing back. It is definitely still going on. ISIS are finding their feet again. Only 10 minutes before Donald Trump's tweets, they claimed responsibility for an attack in Raqqa, one of the key cities the U.S. worked to liberate from ISIS alongside those Syrian Kurds.

I have to tell you, those U.S. Special Forces on the ground will be absolutely baffled by this. It will have come as an enormous surprise. You can tell from being there back in February the bases they built were for a long-term permanent presence. They weren't planning on going anywhere. The U.S. was getting a lot out of this. Firstly, as Barbara said, they kept the Russians and the Iranians in check. The Iranians were accused of letting a lot of weapons get through Syria to Lebanon so they can threaten Israel, a key U.S. ally. On top of that, as well, you have to look at the timing here. Over the last week or so, we have heard the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to the north of Syria, threaten to send his forces in and take on the Syrian Kurds that have been America's ally in the fight against ISIS. Turkey sees them as terrorists. Now, suddenly, out of nowhere we have this American policy reversal to pull them out. That potentially gives a green light for Turkey to move in.

BROWN: The timing is a big question here. Why is suddenly there's this sense of urgency for rapid withdrawal of troops there? We have been there -- the U.S. has been there since late 2015. Suddenly, the president giving this order.

Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much.

Barbara, stick around, because there's a lot more to discuss here.

I want to bring in retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, a CNN military and diplomatic analyst, who was a spokesman for Defense and State Departments under President Obama. And Samantha Vinograd, CNN national security analyst, and a former senior adviser to the national security adviser. Sam, I know you have spent a lot of time in the region. I want your

reaction to the president's tweet this morning declaring victory and saying ISIS has been defeated.

[11:05:26] SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Pam, first of all, I would not call this withdrawal. I would call this a surrender. The president's decision is surrendering obviously to Russian, Iranian, Turkish and Assad's own designs in Syria. But it's also surrendering to the very strong likelihood that ISIS or other terrorist groups will be resurgent in Syria based upon his decision. I spent a year in Iraq. I participated in several troop reviews while at the White House. History is often a lesson in the discussions. We know for a fact from other theaters that defeating terrorists on the battlefield is just step one as part of the counterterrorism strategy. Keeping forces on the ground to maintain those gains and to train local forces to continue to combat terrorists is a critical part of any long-term counterterrorism strategy.

BROWN: To that point, U.S. Special envoy to defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, echoed the sentiment saying just last week the U.S. cannot just defeat the physical space and then leave Syria. Here is exactly what he said: "The military objective is the enduring defeat on ISIS. And if we have learned one thing over the years and during defeat of a group like this means you can't just defeat their physical space and then leave."

So, John Kirby, this decision to withdraw appears to be at odds with that view.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes, and at odds with his own national security adviser, John Bolton, who, in September, said we were going to keep troops here for as long as it took to counter balance Iran. Although that argument is sort of specious to make when all our troops are at work as special advisors in the north part of the country. It's also at odds with his own secretary of state and with his secretary of defense. It is interesting now, Pam, to see how the rest of the administration speaks to this decision, what the Pentagon comes out and says about this, and the State Department, because it very much portrays at the very least a completely chaotic Syria policy that has no resonance throughout the rest of the administration.

BROWN: I want to go to the sound from chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford. He was asked about U.S. progress in Syria at the beginning of the month. Here is what he said. Let's listen.


JOSEPH DUNFORD, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: I will give you some idea of the order of magnitude of the work to be done. We estimate, for example, about 35,000 to 40,000 local forces have to be trained and equipped in order to provide stability. We are probably somewhere along the line of 20 percent through the training of those forces.

With regard to stabilization, we still have a long way to go. I would be reluctant to affix a time. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Barbara Starr, he said that on December 6. What would be his take on this decision today?

STARR: That remains to be seen. Let me be very blunt with what the other panel members have said. The dilemma facing the Pentagon as we stand here and speak. This decision by the president came yesterday. Right now, at this hour, the Pentagon is engaged in trying to fulfill the presidential orders. We are told there are no efforts underway at this hour at least to try to get the president to change his mind. You can assume accurately I think that the implications were laid out to the president and he still wanted to go forward.

So the question is, how does this really -- I mean, the impact on the ground in the Middle East well beyond the Syrian border is extremely significant. We are basically not going to fulfill as a government in the United States the promise that was made to try and train these troops and get them to be able to engage in the long-term fight against ISIS, against an ideology which endures throughout the Middle East. That is one of the key reasons that the implications go far beyond the Syria border, implications in Iraq, in Turkey. This is something that is going to have to be sorted out. And I think it is going to be a long time before we see what may really happen here. It would be catastrophic if we see it all just fall apart rapidly. I don't think anybody really knows at this time.

BROWN: Sam, on that note, what do you think allies are thinking as they see this play out, this order? Also, on the other side, how do you think Iran and Russia view this?

VINOGRAD: That's an excellent question. Let's remember, we are part of a 70-plus nation coalition that is supposed to be working to defeat ISIS. So the decision that the president has made has to be socialized and implemented internally. In these kinds of situations, typically, the Department of Defense, the State Department, the national security adviser wouldn't be coordinating on exactly this decision with the other members of the coalition to explain our reasoning and to try to mitigate any unintended second-order effects. Our ally, Israel, is pretty concerned. Forces on the ground in Syria were not authorized to fight against Iran. At this point, the U.S. president is literally saying that he is fine with Iranian forces remaining on the border with Israel, with no control as far as we know as to their designs on Israel. So for a president that has been focused on countering Iran and protecting Israel, this is a very upsetting moment.

[11:10:52] BROWN: This is probably something that Russia is happy about. So much more to discuss on this very important developing story.

Sam Vinograd, Admiral John Kirby and Barbara Starr, thank you so much.

And coming up on this Wednesday, the White House bends on its $5 billion demand for a border wall. But is it enough to stop a potential government shutdown? Senator McConnell says he is introducing a short-term resolution today. We are live on Capitol Hill.

Plus, CNN obtains the letter of intent that then-Candidate Trump signed for a Trump Tower in Moscow. Why did the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, claim that Trump never signed it?


[11:15:55] BROWN: Lawmakers are racing to prevent a partial government shutdown at midnight on Friday. A short time ago, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate would take up a simple measure today to keep the government running until February when the new Congress convenes. This comes after the White House said there are other ways to get the $5 billion the president wants for the border wall.

CNN's Abby Phillip is at White House.

Abby, any word from the president, the White House on whether he is on board with this?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's the million-dollar question or maybe the $5 billion question that we are facing this week. The White House is being close lipped about where the president is in favor or opposed to this short-term bill.

We did ask counsellor to the president, Kellyanne Conway, this morning about whether he might sign it. Her answer was he would certainly look at it. That is not a no or ruling that out. In effect, what that means stat this White House is backing down from what had been a claim that they wanted $5 billion for the wall and would refuse to fund the government otherwise. Now it sounds very much like the president is signaling that he might be willing to get the money elsewhere and that he might have the military pay for the wall -- I'm sorry, build the wall rather than the Department of Homeland Security.

But I asked Kellyanne Conway this morning about whether or not that really meant that the American public was actually paying for the wall and not Mexico as President Trump has claimed. Here is what she had to say in response to that.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, SENIOR ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: He believes that through the USMCA agreement that Mexico in the savings from that that Mexico would be paying for the wall. But what I think is more important, Abby, is -- I have been in some of the meetings -- the president has been asking the relative agencies and principles, is there money for not the wall, for border security. And he has said one way or another he will get the money. He is asking the question government wide.

PHILLIP: If you are listening carefully, what that amounts to is President Trump is asking federal agencies to find the money for border security. That is, in fact, taxpayer money. If you ask economists, the USMCA, the new NAFTA trade deal, is not going to result in more money that is miraculously going to be used for the wall. It's not clear where the claim is coming from. But clearly, this is a White House trying to find a way out of this problem. And by Friday, we will either have a government shutdown or President Trump will sign some sort of short-term bill to fund the government until February -- Pam?

BROWN: All right, Abby Phillip, thank you so much from the White House.

Joining me now to discuss, Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer, of New Jersey, chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

Thank you for coming on.

I want to get right to it. Mitch McConnell just announced he is going to bring a continuing resolution for a vote later today that would fund the government through February 8. Chuck Schumer has said he is open to that right now. Do you think a shutdown will be averted?

REP. JOSH GOTTHEIMER, (D), NEW JERSEY: I think this is good news. I think it is signaling that we are seeing we are not going to have a shutdown. What I am hearing from folks at home, this is not how they want the country to run. They don't want to see shutting things down. They want to see solving problems. This is very promising.

BROWN: You are saying people at home don't want the government to shut down. They want you to solve problems. What do you say to the critics who say you are kicking the can down the road? We are going to go through this again in February.

GOTTHEIMER: It is much better -- we have had two years where we are trying to deal with health care and immigration reform and we can't get a debate on the House floor. I'm eager, come January, to start addressing issues like infrastructure and health care and start dealing with issues. But jamming it in the next couple of days makes no sense.

I would also say the good news as you see in criminal justice reform where both sides come together and something that the Problem Solvers Caucus worked a lot on to actually get done. And I think that's an example. And if we actually talk to each other and work together we can get things done.

BROWN: We are going to talk about criminal justice reform shortly. That is a very important development.

But staying on this, what do you say to those who claim border wall funding is dead now because the Dems are taking over the House in the new year? The president is not going to get his $5 billion from Congress.

[11:20:12] GOTTHEIMER: I think these are issues -- you saw the bipartisan agreement a few months ago for tough borders and making sure the DREAMers can stay here and live up to our values. I think we need to keep working on this. We had the votes. If we could have gotten a debate on the House floor we could have passed this. I'm hopeful new year we can address the issues and do it the right way and talk to each other and work together. I think there's strong agreement that we need tough borders but also to make sure we live up to our values and address issues like the DREAMers.

BROWN: I want to go back to criminal justice reform, because this really was a rare moment of bipartisanship. It's unfortunate that it is so rare, but it was truly a bipartisan effort. It passed the Senate by a vote of 87 to 12. The Problem Solvers Caucus has been supportive of this bill. As someone who spends a lot of time talking about bipartisanship, why was it that this issue brought Democrats and so many Republicans together?

GOTTHEIMER: I think, first of all, you saw a lot of time where people are talking to each other from both sides. They found there were several issues where they did see eye to eye, whether that is making sure we had people leave prison and not come back by getting more training or saving taxpayers money, which appeals to both sides. I think you found that -- or sentencing guideline disparities. You found issue after issue where people engaged, saying we can agree on this. The problem is that people aren't willing to sit in the room together and work on these issues. The Problem Solvers Caucus, which I co-chair, is half Democrat and half Republican. We brought in all different folks. Saying we should look at this issue and this might be a good bipartisan one. And we had other folks come in and we started working on this and we talked to one another and said we can get behind this. There are so many issues like infrastructure and health care, we can make sure we can get premiums down. There are plenty of issues where we can work together. I'm hoping that in the next Congress we will continue to do that. I think people are sick and tired of us screaming at each other and actually want us to solve problems for them and work together.

BROWN: Perhaps this is a good template how so men different sides came together on criminal justice reform. President Trump made clear he will support it. His adviser, Jared Kushner, was deeply involved in putting this together.


BROWN: How much credit does the president deserve here?

GOTTHEIMER: Yes. Van Jones and Jared Kushner came to talk to our group. Van Jones, on your network. Normally, you wouldn't get these folks together. I think there are plenty of topics, and infrastructure is a great one, where we can immediately come together and say -- I talk to a lot of members on both sides. We both agree we have to deal with crumbling roads and bridges. We have a problem with the gateway, a tunnel in New York and New Jersey, in my district. They know these are things we have to fix and we can't just ignore. I think it is a matter of us -- and I think when people go home, they will see a lot of positive feedback for getting something done. I'm hoping that this becomes a habit and not a rare thing.

BROWN: Congressman Josh Gottheimer, thank you for coming on.

GOTTHEIMER: Thanks. Happy holidays.

BROWN: Happy holidays to you, too.

Coming up on this Wednesday, CNN obtains the letter of intent that then-Candidate Trump signed for a Trump Tower Moscow Project, even those the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, claimed that Trump never signed it. That's up next. Stay with us.


[11:28:22] BROWN: There are three major developments in the Russia investigation just this morning. Number one, CNN has obtained a document that shows President Trump signed a letter of intent to move forward on Trump real estate projects in the heart of Moscow. That signature directly contradicts the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who claimed that Trump never signed it and had very little involvement in the talks.

Number two, Trump's former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, blowing up the president's false claims that FBI agents entrapped and intimidated Flynn to get him to lie. Flynn freely admitting to a judge in court yesterday that he lied to the investigators and he knew it was a crime.

Last, but not least, a federal appeals court compelled an unnamed company owned by an unnamed foreign country to comply with the subpoena that's expected to be related to the Russia investigation four days after a mystery hearing.

A lot to discuss. Joining me now to do all of that, CNN legal analyst, Michael Zeldin, who served as a special assistant to Robert Mueller at the Justice Department. We have Chris Cillizza joining us, CNN politics reporter and editor-at-large.

Michael, first to you.

This letter of intent, can you sign something like this in October of 2015 and then claim throughout the 2016 campaign that you have nothing to do with Russia?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, not with a straight face. The issue is we knew Trump had strong interest in doing something in Russia and no claims to the contrary would disprove that. The issue is, when did the project end and when did the president's knowledge of the project and did that go forward from January 2016 into the campaign? The president has denied that knowledge. Cohen said it went through until June.